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Jewish World Review August 8, 2000/ 7 Menachem-Av, 5760

Robert Leiter

Unraveling the Past

A journalist digs deep into her family’s roots --- and religious wounds -- WHENEVER ASKED, Susan Jacoby’s father would say that he’d been raised an Episcopalian and that his conversion to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, had helped him overcome some of the temptations (gambling foremost among them) that nearly destroyed his marriage and his young family. He would be forever grateful, he always added, for the structure and peace that his new faith provided him.

When she was a young girl, Susan Jacoby rarely questioned this explanation, but as she grew older, doubts crept in. The family name itself, Jacoby — wasn’t that a Jewish name? people had asked. And why were the Jacoby family relatives, most of them in New York, so close-mouthed in comparison to her mother’s large Irish Catholic brood?

And where did Susan’s obsession with the Holocaust come from? Out of nowhere? Or from somewhere deep, as one of her chapter headings suggests.

In reality, though, Jacoby did not even get a glimmer of the truth about her family history until 1969, when she was 24, “newly married and enjoying a honeymoon in Florence.”

“In one of those serendipitous encounters that occur more frequently in detective novels than in life,” writes Jacoby in the opening pages of her new book, Half-Jew, recently published by Scribner, “an old woman fainted in my arms in the courtyard of the Uffizi. After I helped the weary but still imperious lady to a chair in a cafe overlooking the Piazza della Signoria, we exchanged names and discovered a connection.”

The woman turned out to be Estelle Frankfurter, the only sister of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and she personally knew some of the Jacobys. She first mentioned the famous bridge player Oswald Jacoby. The author said he was her father’s older brother, her uncle Ozzie.

Frankfurter said that she also knew Jacoby’s grandfather, also named Oswald, who was “a most charming man.” The author had to admit that she’d never known her grandfather’s name and knew even less about his life because his children, including her father, never talked about him.

“Why, my dear, there was a time when people thought your grandfather might become the first Jewish justice to sit on the Supreme Court,” Frankfurter continued. “He went to school with Justice Cardozo — they were quite good friends at one time, I believe — and he was one of the more talented trial lawyers of his generation in New York. That was in your grandfather’s youth, of course. But there were certain — shall we call them weaknesses? — that prevented him from realizing his potential.”

As it turned out, in those four sentences, the author learned “more about my grandfather, who died in 1931, than my father, aunt, uncle and grandmother had revealed since I was old enough to begin asking questions. … What really struck me, though, was the casual reference to the Jacoby family’s Jewish origins. Brought up as a Roman Catholic in a small Midwestern town, far from New York City, where my father was born and raised, I had only recently figured out, and elicited the admission from my dad, that the Jacobys were Jews. Or, as my father corrected me, that they had been ‘born Jewish.’ ”


Half-Jew : A Daughter's Search for Her Family's Buried Past
By Susan Jacoby
Schribner, 302 pages

-- Purchasing this book by clicking on title helps fund JWR

Jacoby was then on her way to the Soviet Union with her new husband. They both had recently taken jobs with The Washington Post, and the future seemed far more intriguing to Jacoby than the murky past. She took some notes after the meeting with Frankfurter and filed them in a folder marked “family.” But it took her nearly two decades — and the “freedom” that came with the death of her father in 1986 — to more fully engage in an exploration of the past.

As Jacoby notes, her father grew up in a family “dedicated not only to hiding its Jewish past but to maintaining other small and large deceptions ranged around the primary fiction. These secrets defined and distorted the lives of my Jacoby grandparents, deeply wounded my father and his siblings, and left my generation with a legacy composed of a surface tabula rasa with layers of pain underneath.”

It would take her years, she admits, to sift through the layers of secrets kept by three generations of Jacobys until she made her way back to the mid-19th century and the arrival of her great-grandfather, Maximilian Jacoby, in New York. A German-speaking Jew from Breslau, he left his homeland, like so many other such immigrants of the period, after the failed democratic revolutions of 1848. Once in the United States, he managed to establish a successful business importing art.

“Max’s sons,” writes Jacoby, “including my grandfather with the mysterious ‘weaknesses,’ had attained enough success by the turn of the century to be considered worthy subjects of personal profiles in various New York publications.”

What went wrong then? And why did Jacoby’s father, Robert, and Uncle Ozzie and Aunt Edith feel so compelled to convert?

Writes the author: “My grandfather came of age in New York at a time when his alma mater, Columbia University, held en-trance exams on the High Holidays in order to discourage religious Jews from applying. And my father grew up in a country where only yesterday — not ‘once upon a time’ — he was called kike on the school playground.

“In my father’s and grandfather’s generations, there were of course many ways for a Jew to respond to the tantalizing American combination of unprecedented opportunities for Jewish advancement with anti-Semitic barriers that could not always be anticipated. The Jacobys’ long, concerted effort to transform themselves into gentiles was one such response. This book is my attempt to understand what was gained and what was lost in that incomplete transformation.”

Jacoby, a veteran journalist and author of four other books, offers in her family history one of the most complete portraits of why and how people chose the assimilationist route in America, especially German Reform Jews. Much of what she finds is painful for a committed Jew to read, but it is also highly illuminating and necessary history. The basic story she has to tell, the unraveling of the lies about her accomplished, troubled relatives, is absolutely riveting.

Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


© 2000, Robert Leiter